Saturday, June 12, 2010

Writer-Writer Chit Chat with Cheryl Renee Herbsman

Ever want to know how writers you admire do their thing? I've been collecting interviews on craft with newly published YA authors and posting them here. This series is entitled Writer-Writer Chit Chat. Here is my conversation with Cheryl Renee Herbsman, author of the young adult novel Breathing.

Breathing is entering the world in paperback this month. Hurray! What has this first year of publication been like? I know Breathing was nominated for a couple of different honors. Can you tell us about them?

Yes, thank you! Breathing has just hit stores in paperback, another exciting milestone. This first year has been a whirlwind. The ups and downs can really spin a person around. It’s been a good learning experience in so many ways, not the least of which have been learning to thicken my skin and to really savor the up moments. I feel very fortunate that Breathing received some really fabulous industry reviews. VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) gave it a starred review. They are the only review journal to rate books based both on literary quality and teen appeal. And they gave Breathing a perfect score on both counts, giving it their prestigious Perfect 10. Only eighteen books out of the thousands reviewed in 2009 received the Perfect 10, so it felt like quite an honor (not to mention it was pretty cool being on a list with JK Rowling J.) Breathing also made the Bank Street College List of Best Books, was a finalist for the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Teen Book of the Year, and was recently nominated for the 2011 Texas Tayshas High School Reading List.

Wow! So exciting! Breathing has had a busy year. Savannah is such a likeable, relatable girl. How did she come to be? Did her voice, her personality, or her situation evolve first in your imagination? Is she like someone you remember or knew?

Savannah came into existence during a writing exercise at my writing group. That night a woman came to the group who’d never been there before. She had a very thick Carolinian accent. I grew up in North Carolina, but hadn’t been back in a while, and something about hearing this woman’s accent fed my soul like a hot bowl of soup on a cold winter’s night. Savannah came to life. And once she opened her mouth, she really never stopped. I had no idea what her story would be about. But that was okay, because she did, and mostly I just took dictation. Interestingly, the Carolinian woman never did come back to the writing group. I’m so glad she showed up that one night!

The setting for Breathing is gorgeous. What are your thoughts about setting in novels. Does is ever seem like an overlooked fictional element. What would you tell writers who want to make their setting as vivid?

Thank you. I love the setting in Breathing. It’s a place of my childhood, although it is partly real and partly fictional. I do think setting can be overlooked at times, which is a shame, because I think it can add a lot of richness to a story. At the same time, I think it’s crucial that the setting come through as part of the action, not in long descriptive chunks. The way I bring setting into a novel is to try to immerse myself in the character, use my senses to take in what the character might be experiencing. So in a given scene I might ask myself, what is she hearing, smelling, seeing, etc. The more vividly you can imagine it, the more vividly you can convey it. When we do this, we bring the readers into the story that much more. Then, hopefully, they’re not just reading the story from outside of it, but are actually immersed and sensing it themselves.

The act of breathing has such resonance in Savannah's story. How much research did you have to do into asthma. Can you describe how the metaphoric properties of breathing emerged when you were first drafting?

In the early drafts of the book, the precognitive visions Savannah has played a much larger role than they do in the final draft. When I was writing them, I thought they would be more believable if they occurred when Savannah was in some kind of altered state of consciousness. So I came up with the idea that she would have asthma, and the lack of oxygen would cause this other part of her brain to become alert. As the visions got downplayed in later drafts, I found that the asthma had become an integral part of the character and the story. So the asthma stayed. As for the research, my husband is a pediatrician and has done some special work on asthma. Also, when I was in college, I worked in Child Life at the medical center, where I interacted with kids facing all kinds of illnesses, asthma and other breathing difficulties among them. My husband and my daughter both have mild forms of asthma. So I had a fair bit of knowledge and experience going in. But still, I researched both online and in person to make sure I understood what it actually feels like to struggle with one’s breath and to experience some of the hospital procedures Savannah goes through.

Jackson Channing is an interesting romantic hero--very real in so many ways. What are your thoughts about him as he relates to the prince charming ideal? Has he swooped in to save Savannah from her troubles? (Answer this one only if you think it won't give too much away about the ending.)

That’s an interesting question. I think of Jackson as a good guy. I believe in good guys. For me, I guess, Prince Charming isn’t the hero who swoops in and slays the dragon for you. He’s the guy who swoops in and believes in you. He’s the guy who maybe hands the princess the sword and calls out encouragement from the sidelines.

I LOVE that description because it pins Jackson's appeal down exactly. What is next for you as an author? Are you working on a new book? Can we get a sneak peek?

I have a manuscript out on submission now. It’s a story that has really captured my heart. And I hope to be able to share it soon!

Oooh, I'm intrigued. Here is my last question. Has the publisher changed your very beautiful cover for the paperback version? Where can we find out more about you and Breathing?

The cover art has remained the same, which I’m very happy about it. They’ve added some lovely pull-quotes from reviews and a nice tagline on the front cover: “Can Your First Love Become The Love of Your Life?” Sweet, isn’t it?

If you’d like to see me read from Breathing (yes, in a Southern accent!) or read the first chapter yourself, stop by my website. It’s at Hop over to the Books page. There’s also a fun romance quiz and lots of other cool stuff. From there you can also find links to my blog, facebook, twitter, etc.

Thank you so much for this lovely interview!

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you and learn a bit more about your fabulous first novel.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Year In the Life

It's June 10th! Where has the year gone? I seem to ask this every year, but this year in particular seemed to speed by at an alarming rate. Another school year passed by. Over a year that my book has been out in the world. And today is the day Breathing hits stores in paperback, a new milestone for my book baby! I've learned so much in my first year as an author and I feel like there is still so very much to learn.

Authors tend to refer to the whole business of authorship as a roller coaster. I definitely agree. One minute you're flying past the stars because you accepted a book deal or received a starred review and the next you're plummeting to the center of the earth because of an unkind blog review or because your Amazon number has gone too high. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. The ups and downs in this business can be nauseating at times.

But I wouldn't give it up for anything. My work time is spent connecting with characters, getting to know them and sharing their stories, tinkering with words and crafting story arcs. Research takes me to all sorts of unexpected and exciting places (usually only virtually, but still!) My down time is spent reading amazing novels, enjoying them and learning from them. And I've met so many wonderful authors, teachers, librarians, booksellers, publishing professionals, and most importantly, readers. It's a gift like no other.

So today I just wanted to share my gratitude, as Breathing comes out into the world in a new way. It's been a long road, sometimes bumpy and sometimes exhilarating. Today, I'm just so grateful to be here.

To celebrate, I've teamed up with Saundra Mitchell, author of Shadowed Summer, which came out in paperback on Tuesday, for a Hot Southern Nights summer giveaway. Come check out the prize packs here

And wherever you may be on your ride, remember, the next shooting-past-the-stars moment may be just around the corner!

posted by Cheryl Renee Herbsman

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Day In The Life Of A Working Writer

6:30 Woke up and started to mentally organize my writing day. I need to make progress on the new novel. Some other little odds and ends, but really, I need to get back on track and write 1,000 words a day on this thing or I’ll never finish it. I was stuck completely a week and a half ago, so I picked up a picture book and got a critique on it from Suz Blackaby who has a sharp eye and a ton of experience writing for beginning readers. She showed me how the story would work better as an easy chapter book. She was right on the money, and I blazed through half of it in a week. So now I’m wondering if it’s crazy to try and write a chapter book and a novel at the same time. What if chapter books are even harder to sell than picture books? Send an email to my agent about where I should be spending my energy.

7:00 Teenager off to school. Get dressed. Check email. Sign field trip forms. Braid hair. Walk to the bus stop. Chat with the neighbor about whether or not to cut down a tree that shades both our driveways. Vote for keeping the tree.

8:15 Quiet house at last! Appalling chaos in the kitchen. Devote an hour to breakfast, newspaper, laundry and the messy kitchen. I should really be writing first thing because I know that if I don’t get 500 words in before lunch, I’ll never get to 1,000. But you know Sudoku is a lot of fun and I’m fast at those.

9:00 Okay, now that my kitchen is not quite so frightening, I really need to get down to business. 5 minutes of book keeping, 10 minutes of coordinating the family schedule for the week over the phone with my husband. The usual run around with dance, music and scouts, but only one really tricky day in which I have to get myself across the river to give a lecture at Washington State University when I really should be bringing my kids home from dance. 15 more minutes in which I realize that the bathroom is even messier than the kitchen, and do a little something about that. This could go on all day….so

9:40 Pack up computer and go to the library where they have quiet rooms! Thank you Multnomah County!

12:00 Resurface in a complete daze as someone is tapping on the quiet room door. Unfortunately, they have a 2 hour limit. Fortunately, I worked through and rewrote entirely the first two chapters of the novel. What had seemed kind of iffy a week and a half ago is actually going to work just fine.

12:15 Stop at Baker & Spice for tea and a lunch tart with spinach, tomato and cheese. Yum. Check email. Lovely message from my agent. Of course I can write an easy chapter book. Flexible is good! He sold an easy chapter series a week ago! No problem. This is why a good agent is golden. No way do I have time to figure out the chapter book market, and since Steve has done that already, I don’t have to.

12:30 Back to working on the novel in the warm and wonderful smelling Baker & Spice. About 250 words into new work for the day, a different solution to the plot arc occurs to me. Stop writing and chart out that story line. This could work. It’s better by far than what I was thinking of before. This plot arc has a tall fir tree in it just like the one that my neighbor and I were talking about this morning. It ties in perfectly with that raven who showed up on the page for no reason two weeks ago. Funny how often story making works out this way. Email a person I know who worked with wild birds about some questions I’d need answered if I pursue this story line.

2:30 Save the afternoon’s work and head home.

3:00 Catch up on email. Fix a snack. Make Dinner. Begin writing this post. Check mailbox. Let the chickens out into the yard. Laundry.

4:00 Take the kids up to the local library to volunteer at the summer reading kick-off carnival. Send care package to my college girl for finals week.

4:45 Feel the exhaustion. Weigh the nap/caffeine option. Take a 10 minute nap and then play violin for 20 minutes. Ah, so much better!

5:45 Pick kids up from volunteering and drop them off at dance. How did it get to be 6:00 and I haven’t gotten any exercise yet? Weigh the eat chocolate/take a hike option. Choose both.

7:00 Poured down rain on my hike. Feeling damp and grubby. But the forest was full of wild roses so I’m also feeling pretty chipper. Bet I could still get my 1,000 words if I work at it. Only 762 left to go. How hard can that be?

7:55 Pretty hard. 574 words to go.

8:00 Pick kids up from dance. Supper. Homework. Chores. Piano and violin duets (my favorite thing!) Showers. Reading out loud-- Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett—so funny.

10:00 Really should get back to work. Would much rather browse my friends’ blogs. And I should really update my own website. And we’re out of milk AGAIN. Grrr. On the other hand, my high schooler finished all his homework and folded everybody’s laundry! I completely forgive him for drinking a whole gallon of milk in one day. Maybe I’ll just finish the scene I was in the middle of when I had to pick up the kids.

10:50 Got sidetracked with lesson plans for a school visit in June but that was pretty important, too, so I’m glad I got it sorted out. Now back to that scene I was working on earlier.

12:20 Only 827 words today and that scene isn’t really going anywhere. Rats. I fail at this with alarming regularity and the only thing that actually convinces me that I am a writer is that I’m eager to get back to work tomorrow.

Posted by Rosanne Parry